Though I enjoyed my time there a whole lot, I can’t say Chicago struck me as much more than a weaker, duller, far-worse-fooded (albeit sometimes somewhat prettier) version of New York City. It wasn’t as if I was counting down the days until my return flight, but when the time did come, I wasn’t sad in the slightest. I’d seen Chicago—many times over, it seemed, as all I do on vacation is walk (and walk, and take the train, and walk)—and I didn’t have much interest in staying any longer.
In so many senses, Paris is Chicago’s polar opposite. Where the latter is blunt and rounded, the former comes to a fine point. Paris strikes no one as an aspiring anything-else—it’s a place of its own, and it doesn’t demand any comparison. Besides, to a remarkable degree, Paris is fleshed out; there are no (or hardly any) dead zones, no suburbs disguised as city proper. And as with NYC, there’s no seeing it all. That, I think, is worth traveling for. (Worth moving to, even…though not if you’ve recently decided to put all your eggs into the English-language-academia basket. But I digress.)
Now. The French are food-obsessed, but not in any Midwestern sense. Whereas Chicago signatures often pile on one high-flavor ingredient after another, as if trying to keep your focus from settling on any one in particular, French food…doesn’t, thank God. A French meal never feels like an assault. You’ll taste each and every ingredient, but certainly not as part of one heavy-handed, too-forward offensive. There’s no yellow-dribble cheese, no fry-topped dogs, no stuffed-crust pizzas, no jalapeño poppers. Nothing bacon-wrapped. Nothing giardiniera-bullied. There’s nuance. There’s subtlety. There’s actual depth of flavor. It’s all rather exciting.
That said, lowbrow food is far, far more nut allergy–friendly than any of the good stuff. (That’s a lot of the reason I eat the way I do. But I also just really like to chew, no matter what I think of what I’m chewing.) I had one hell of a hard time, then, finding sustenance in Paris. Everything has nuts in it—or probable traces, at least. It wasn’t as if I was expecting to find a crêperie without Nutella smeared all over; I’d had my hopes up, though, for, say, a bread-only boulangerie or two. (Nope.) And actual restaurants were worse yet: nut-filled, and usually allergy-unfriendly, too. A winning combination. So I lost some weight.
For my first couple days, I subsisted off a few repeat-(and-repeat-)buys from Monoprix, a grocery chain whose in-house products seem to be labeled rather well for allergens. (I’m sure there are other brands out there that label just as well, but Monoprix’s was easy to spot and easy to trust, so I stuck with it.) Thanks to Monoprix, I was able to find safe baguettes—not, like, bakery-tier baguettes, but baguettes nonetheless—and safe meats, cheeses, spreads, crackers, yogurts, and a whole bunch of other bullshit, too. I bought mascarpone. I bought caramel sauce. I even bought caviar—for 2,50€, and it wasn’t half bad.
But while Monoprix was a godsend, it wasn’t quite enough. Given I was in Paris, of all places, I wanted desperately to be able to dine out. Really, though, it’s not all that Paris-specific; for me, right around 80% of the fun of travel is the circumstance of getting plopped down in the middle of a brand new food scene. These days, finding new restaurants in NYC is pretty slow-going. Since starting this blog, I’ve developed a rather reliable restaurant-finding strategy, but I’ve exhausted most of this city’s easy options—and many of the hard ones, too—so new additions, while they do continue to trickle in, are relatively few and far between. But a trip to somewhere else means newfound access to untapped pool of restaurants, and newfound access to an untapped pool of restaurants almost always means a bunch of safe options, right off the bat.
Mathematically, at least. But Paris defied all my rules.
My usual restaurant-finding methodology—essentially a judge-first, ask-second process of combing through menus and then contacting the restaurants behind the ones that look promising—got me nowhere good. Of the restaurants that even had a website, most had no online menu. And when there was a menu, it was almost always far too nutty for me. Besides, when I did find pursuable options—almost never, mind you—I had no viable next step. My French is fine, but not understand-the-particulars-of-restaurant-jargon-on-the-phone fine. And most of my emails were going unanswered. So short of showing up and asking about allergens then and there—which I did try, and which did not go well—there wasn’t much else I could do. So I moped. A lot. And took to spicing up my Monoprix meals with (sweet, sweet) junk: jars of Biscoff, chocolate puddings, and about half a million varieties of European Haribo gummies.
Of course, that lifestyle expired rather quickly. I’d found no repeat-worthy restaurants, and within days, I got sick—literally—of eating like a moneyed, orphaned toddler, so faced with the choice of either figuring out a new approach to restaurant-finding or retreating, tail-between-legs, to NYC, I went ahead and chose the former. I ditched judge-first, ask-second in favor of its reverse—which basically amounted to Googling “where to eat in Paris,” sending the same cut-and-paste email to each and every restaurant that came up, regardless of the menu (or lack thereof), and then looking further into the ones that sent back a promising response. If a restaurant seemed allergy-aware, and if whoever I was talking to seemed confident about the kitchen’s ability to churn out a contamination-free meal, I’d stick the place right onto my to-try list—regardless of how nutty the menu was.
[That new approach seems, in retrospect, like the obvious one, but it wasn’t. I prefer to search for restaurants that happen to be relatively un-nutty, as with those sorts of places, I don’t have to worry about allergy-awareness or human error. That seems to be an unconventional approach to doing this whole dining-out-with-food-allergies thing, though—which explains why the list I’ve put together is so unlike any other I’ve found. Judging by the blogs I follow and the Facebook groups I (so begrudgingly) participate in, most nut-allergic folks either don’t think or don’t want to search for restaurants that are incidentally nut-free, choosing instead to go for the sorts that have nuts on site, but that are allergy-aware enough to offer contamination-free meals. (Which is all well and good, of course. I go for those sorts of places, too—they just don’t make up the bulk of my regular spots. Sorry. I know I’m rambling. Y’all are lucky I don’t permit myself to use footnotes.)]
Anyway. Here’s (the meat of) the message I sent:
Je suis sévèrement allergique à tous types de fruits à coques (c’est à dire les noix, les amandes, les noisettes, les pignons, les noix de cajou, les pistaches, etc.), et je pourrais devenir extrêmement malade si j’en consomme, même si ce n’est qu’une trace. Pouviez-vous donc preparer mon repas de manière à ne pas entrer en contact avec des fruits à coque?
And here’s what I hope is a relatively accurate English translation:
I’m severely allergic to all tree nuts (like walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pine nuts, cashews, pistachios, etc.), and I could get extremely sick if I consume any, even if it’s just a trace. Would you be able, then, to prepare my meal in such a way as to keep it from coming into contact with any nuts?
I must’ve pasted that chunk of text upwards of 200 times, only to get about 30 responses, most along the lines of “I’m sorry, but while we’d love to have you, I don’t think we’d be able to offer you a safe meal.” (Fine. In fact, I really appreciate that sort of honesty, and I much prefer it to the alternative.) But I did eventually get a few promising replies, and so I did end up getting to build up a decent mini-list of options.
So. Here’s the rundown.